In a culture obsessed with youthfulness, both real and perceived, Michael Grust stands apart. As the rest of us lament our latest grey hairs and quietly voice our worries of growing old, the 49-year-old Grust spends his days catering to the elderly—the demographic group many of us fear joining.
Not Grust. As president of Senior Resource Group, a Solana Beach, Calif.-based senior housing firm, he embraces the aged, overseeing a company that develops, owns, and operates senior properties in California, Arizona, and Oregon.
“They've developed really tremendous communities,” says David Schless, president of the American Seniors Housing Association. “They see things that others don't see,” such as the Los Angeles parcel that would become The Village at Sherman Oaks, now one of SRG's most popular properties. “That's a remarkable case study,” Schless says. “That was a site that required an enormous amount of energy on the development side. Lender after lender said, ‘We can't do that.'”
But the company also takes a uniquely residential and social approach to senior housing, a multifamily sector often associated with nursing homes. “You don't want to live in an institution, but you don't want to live in a cruise ship for the rest of your life. That's not home. You want more intimacy in your experience,” Grust explains.
Instead of cafeterias with assigned mealtimes and seating, SRG operates 12-hour restaurants at its properties, places where residents and their visitors can order Chinese chicken salad for lunch and homemade oatmeal cookies for dessert. “Intergenerational lounges” with rocking chairs, video games, and comfortable seating provide appealing spots for residents to play with grandchildren or talk with families. “The dreaded trip to the nursing home is no longer so dreaded,” says Grust, recalling his own visits to his grandfather's nursing home. “Families are mingling and staying together, rather than the resident being dropped off and never being seen again.”
Richard Gollis, principal of The Concord Group, a Southern California market research firm that has worked with SRG, notes the difference. “It's not an institutional approach. [SRG properties] are not ‘facilities,'” he says. “They are communities.”
And highly successful ones at that. “There's 100 people on the waiting list at Sherman Oaks,” says Greg Camia, senior vice president of Starwood Capital Group, the real estate investment group that purchased SRG in 2000. “They haven't had a lost-revenue day in three years.”
Chicago Contradiction In many ways, Grust is an unexpected champion of the frail. Energetic, athletic (he plays competitive basketball), and charismatic, Grust gives off an intensity that stands in strong contrast to many of the elderly people he serves.
While these older residents ease down the carpeted halls and landscaped paths of La Vida Real, Grust powers through the property. With perhaps a one-second warning to his companions, the company president ducks into stairwells and strides down the halls, pointing out details like the Internet lounge, hallway chair rails that double as grab bars for unsteady seniors, and the on-site movie theater at the Rancho San Diego, Calif., property.
But the juxtaposition of personality and place somehow fits the Chicago native, a self-described “contradiction” who brings together the rough-and-tumble drive and discipline of a football player with an appreciation for architecture and interior design.